“Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came to be and how historical divides are being confronted in the present day.
The Sri Venkateswara Temple in Penn Hills emerged from a series of dance classes in a basement in Squirrel Hill.
A new U.S. immigration law in 1965 had brought a wave of Indian professionals to Pittsburgh in the 1960s and ’70s, attracted to jobs in its universities and medical centers.
Those who were parents wanted their children to feel connected to Indian culture — to “hold on to something,” said Aparna Rayaprol, a sociologist at the University of Hyderabad in India. Rayaprol came to Pittsburgh in 1988 to do her graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh. She ended up studying the local S.V. Temple for her thesis project.
The parents hired a teacher of a classical South Indian dance form to instruct their children. They found space in the basement of an Indian businessman’s shop in Squirrel Hill and built a small Hindu shrine there, so the students could say a blessing before the classes.
Pretty soon, that basement shrine felt insufficient. They wanted something larger, more elaborate and on a hill, as was tradition in Hinduism.
The seeds for the future Sri Venkateswara Temple were planted.
At first, Pittsburgh’s Jain, Sikh and multiple Hindu communities all shared a space in Monroeville, now known as the Hindu Jain Temple.
Soon, though, cultural and religious differences, like which deities to feature where, and funding complications led the South Indian devotees to split off and seek a temple of their own.
Their site would be modeled after (and partially funded by) the famous Sri Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati, a city in Andhra Pradesh, India. Other funding came from local membership dues and devotee donations. It cost several million dollars to construct.
When it was time to start building, 15 sculptors and an architect arrived from India to make sure the temple adhered precisely to specifications outlined in sacred Hindu texts.
It was “very, very significant,” Rayaprol said. The S.V. Temple in Pittsburgh continues to attract devotees from across the country because of its likeness to the original one in India. It was completed in 1977.
Yet, for all the attention to authenticity, the builders of Pittsburgh’s temple also had to be creative, said Fred Clothey, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
According to tradition, for example, the deity in a temple’s central shrine must be in contact with the earth. In Pittsburgh, though, the central shrine was going to be on the second floor. No problem: The immigrants built a pillar of dirt on which the second-floor shrine sits.
In fact, in some ways, Pittsburgh’s South Indian immigrant community observed Hindu rituals more thoroughly or carefully than in India, which, among the professional class at least, tended to be quite secular.
People were asking, ‘Who are we? What defines our cultural identity?’ and turning to religion as an answer, Rayaprol said. She found that women, in particular, bore the work of defining that cultural identity — something that could be burdensome, on top of their other roles.
“It’s major work,” she said, detailing the different pressures a woman could face. “Even though she may be an anesthesiologist by day, come Friday night, she’s driving her kids to the temple.”
Some women also became more studied in Hinduism to keep up with their curious children.
The first generation would accept the rituals on authority, Rayaprol explained. They didn’t question their meaning. The new American-born generation would ask, ‘Why?’
Rayaprol offers her experience with the bindi, the red mark Hindu women sometimes wear on their forehead, as an example of her own American instruction in Hindu ritual.
For her, it was a “cosmetic” thing, she said. If she was wearing an Indian dress, she’d wear a bindi; if she was wearing pants, like at the university, she wouldn’t. She first heard the religious significance — to sharpen the mind or keep it focused on spiritual matters — from someone at the S.V. Temple.
The first generation of immigrant women were constantly weighing how to help their kids feel a sense of their Indian identity and also like they fit in as Americans.
That might look like cooking French fries alongside traditional Indian foods at community dinners or letting their kids play basketball outside the temple for a bit before entering.
The temple was a space to balance cultural preservation and exploration, a negotiation many felt was key to their immigrant experience.
Rather than choosing “Indian” or “American,” Rayaprol said, “American culture allows you to have the hyphen.”
This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.
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